By Ken Mochizuki
Dom Lee, illustrator
Lee and Low Books
Back Cover: “Shorty” and his family, along with thousands of Japanese-Americans, are forced to relocate from their home to a “camp” after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fighting the heat, dust, and freezing cold nights of the desert, Shorty and the others at the camp need something to look forward to, even if only for nine innings. So they build a playing field, and in this unlikely place, a baseball league is formed. Surrounded by barbed-wire fencings and guards in towers, Shorty soon finds that he is playing not only to win, but to gain dignity and self-respect as well. Inspired by actual events.”
Opening: “One day, my dad looked out at the endless desert and decided then and there to build a baseball field. He said people needed something to do in Camp.”
In 1942, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States decided it was safest to secure all Japanese-Americans, rather than worry about allegiances.* Thousands of people from coastal homes in the west were packed up—with only a few items and many losing their homes—and taken to internment camps in the middle of the desert.
This made simple sense back then. Control those who might still have an unbreakable bond with their homeland and would be willing to harm America. The problem with this approach is the message it sent to the rest of Americans, some of who then responded in hurtful, and sometimes hateful, ways against all Japanese-Americans, even after the war and the people returned.
Young Shorty had kid problems prior to the internment camps. Being a short kid and less athlete, he was ways the last kid chosen—the one nobody wanted on their team. This life of freedom, albeit not an easy one for Shorty, was much better than what would soon happen.
At home, mom is crying and dad is loading up what he can to take to the camp. Freedom lost now required standing in long lines, even for the bathroom. Those who once prided themselves on their work ethic now had still hands, unless you count the work needed to remove the constant dust.
Shorty’s dad looked out at the barren land and decided a baseball field would at least keep the kids active. So with help, he flooded an area of dusty land, turning it into compact sand suitable for a baseball diamond. With stray wood, the men built bleachers, while the women created baseball uniforms from mattress covers. Friends outside of the camp sent the needed baseball equipment. Soon, the men had built a field of dreams, and yes, the kids did play.
Baseball Saved Us tells the story of the internment camp baseball leagues, mentioning little about the actual day-to-day sacrifices living at the camp demanded. The story emphasizes Shorty’s anger, frustrations, and fear of the guards, especially the one in the tower. He fails to recognize the guard enjoying the games and Shorty’s progress. If the guard was menacing, as young Shorty believes, I doubt the guard would have smiled and given Shorty a thumbs up when he hit a long, high homerun, winning the championship for his team. Empathizing with your captor must be difficult, but Shorty is projecting his fears onto a guard who has simply watched him play baseball, and this fear turns into the alarming paranoia. Little eases Shorty’s fears and his brother suddenly becoming disrespectful only add to this.
Nearly three years ago I reviewed another book about the baseball leagues of the Japanese-American internment camps. The Lucky Baseball: My Story in a Japanese-American Internment Camp by Suzanne Lieurance tells the story of Harry Yakamoto a young boy who started the baseball league inside the internment camp, while his restaurant owning family helped in the kitchen, making edible food. The Lucky Baseball detailed life in the camp and the spirit of cooperation that allowed the internees more control over their surroundings and their lives. Baseball Saved Us is squarely about baseball and its transcending powers for those incarcerated at the camps in the Arizona desert.
My only reservation is Shorty’s emotions heading into paranoia. I would have liked more of the camp life in the story to help explain this extreme emotion. Being taunted by others yelling, “Easy out, no batter,” during a baseball game is part of the game. I think boys will enjoy this book. Shorty is nearly every kid at some point or another. Only a few are born terrific ball players. Shorty takes his frustrations of camp life and his hatred of the tower guard and transforms them into batting power unlike any he had ever encountered. These emotions, very closely tied, help him focus, and gave him a determination rarely seen—at least in terms of baseball power. Kids who play ball—practically every boy and scores of girls—will like Baseball Saved Us. Many will take Shorty’s determination and make it their own.
*In 1988, The U.S. government admitted placing Japanese-Americans from the west coast in internment camps was wrong.
AWARDS – 1993 Parents’ Choice Award / Washington State Governor’s Writers Award / Best Multicultural Title, “Cuffies Award” / “Editors’ Choice” – San Francisco Chronicle / “Choices,” Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) / “Pick of the Lists,” – American Bookseller / Washington State Children’s Choice Award Finalist
Dom Lee, illustrator website
Released October 1993
Age 4 to 8
BASEBALL SAVED US. Text copyright © 1993 by Ken Mochizuki. Illustrations copyright © 1993 by Dom Lee. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Lee and Low, New York NY.
- Internment Camps (camilacarballo.wordpress.com)
- Fresno, CA. Tower Pays Tribute To Interned Japanese-Americans (team-yellow.com)
- Lest We Forget: Internment Camps in North America (nickmatthews.ca)
- Japanese-American Internment (isadorabusch100w.wordpress.com)